March 24, 2019
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A dilapidated home located at 1852 10th Ave. sits vacant in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON — Scott Lemley and Christal Perry, the director and demolition specialist with the City of Huntington’s planning and development department, seemingly know every dilapidated house in Huntington better than the back of their hands and continue to find more they are interested in each week.

Some of the houses appear fine on the outside, while others Lemley compared to a Hollywood film set, with a facing prop with the back completely bare. After spending just an hour with the dedicated pair, it’s easy to see why they are unfazed when discussing Huntington’s largest dilapidated housing demolishing project yet — 100 homes in just a year, more than half of the current homes on their list.

The goal is big. Between late fall 2017 and the end of 2018, only 53 structures were demolished in Huntington. Comparatively, the goal is nearly double what the West Virginia National Guard and Division of Highways tore down when they demolished 54 structures during a 28-day stint in Huntington in 2012.

As of Feb. 28, the city had already torn down 20 homes, or one-fifth of its goal, in just two months with weather at its worse.

Several key things will help them reach their goal, including more than $400,000 donated by private individuals and a single contract with one construction company.

“I think a lot of it is streamlining the process, like setting something on the list, and going through the bid process,” Perry said. “Every year we get a list of contracts and last year we only got one and that was great because I didn’t have to go to council for every single house. It saves us eight to 10 weeks on each house. That was just a waiting period for literally no reason.”

It can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000, with an average of $7,300, to tear down a home depending on its size, the presence of asbestos and other hindering factors. Some have to even been taken down by hand based on their proximity to other homes, or might need fill dirt for a basement.

If the goal of 100 homes is met, they plan to continue tearing down the homes until the money is exhausted.

One of the donors is Old Colony Realtors, who

donated money to the city to tear down a home in the 1800 block of Charleston Avenue. Another anonymous donor gave $100,000 in two years to tear down houses.

The tearing down of dilapidated homes benefits the realtors and home owners, as they have a better chance of selling other homes in the neighborhood.

With only one construction company that has bid on the contracts to tear down the homes, the process moves quicker, Lemley said, because they do not have to seek approval from city council for each home being torn down.

The city’s public work department also helps take down smaller structures, like garages, that aren’t as diffcult or take up too much time to tear down.

This also helps in emergency situations, like when two vacant homes — already on the demolition list — on 28th Street in Huntington caught fire Feb. 1. The homes caught fire in the early morning hours and by lunch had already been torn down.

Each year the pair and others drive through the city to find new homes that night need to go on the list, but they said anyone can call in a complaint. There is a big difference been a code violation and an unsafe home, they said.

Once a house is determined to be an unsafe home, the city must work to serve that person, which can take several months and they have to go before the unsafe building commission, which looks at the property and determines if it needs to be demolished. Once approved, the commission will determine the level of urgency of the demolition.

Lemley and Perry said sometimes if a house is a big enough nuisance, the entire neighborhood will come to see it torn down, a situation that occurred last year in the Highlawn neighborhood.

“The whole community was out there with lawn chairs watching them tear down the house,” Lemley said. “That’s how much of a nuisance that one property was to the entire area.”

Lemley and Perry said they understand the homeowner’s connection to their homes sometimes is a life-long connection, and are sympathetic. One home recently placed on the list, they agreed to leave a picket fence on the lot and some flowers, a compromise they are more than willing to make. Often times the homeowner will just stop paying taxes on the property after the home has been demolished, which sends the property to the tax sale, which voids the city’s lien, they said.

“That’s what we need a stronger land bank for,” she said. “So they could go in there and we could sell the empty lots or donate them. We could make the lot productive again.”

While Lemley and Perry have hopes the empty lots will one day become something to help the city’s economy, it’s not as easy as just tearing down the eyesores. The city does not receive the deed to the property automatically. They place a lien on the property and hope to be reimbursed one day by a landowner or that the property will be turned over the land bank, where it can be purchased or donated for a good cause.

The pair said everyday they receive calls from someone wanting to turn their home over to the land bank, but the program is not property funded to do so with the cost of legal fees, keeping up with the property and more. It can cost a minimum of $1,000 for the land bank to take over a home.

Property owners interested in having their homes demolished willingly can also call the city to set up a payment plan, they said. They will also take donations from anyone interested in seeing more homes torn down.

For more information about the program, contact the city at 304-696-4486.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.